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Buffalo associate superintendent named to Time's 'Innovative Teachers of the Year' list

Fatima Morrell, wearing a black jacket and silver jewelry.
Fatima Morrell is associate superintendent of culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives for Buffalo Public Schools.

A Buffalo Public Schools administrator has been chosen a national leader.

Fatima Morrell, associate superintendent of culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives, has been selected out of hundreds of applications across the U.S. as one of TIME magazine's 10 "Innovative Teachers of the Year."

This inaugural list profiles teachers who, despite all the challenges of the 2021-2022 school year, went above and beyond to change the educational landscape and make a positive impact on their community.

Time said Morrell was chosen for the significant impact she had on Buffalo relating to anti-racism curriculum. She helped redirect the curriculum to include lessons with principles including empathy, diversity and restorative justice. Morrell said it was part of a six-year effort that created a new office of Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Initiatives in the city school district to address racial inequalities in the classroom, the curriculum and the community. And it has become especially significant in light of the racially-motivated mass shooting at the Jefferson Avenue Tops supermarket May 14.

Read and listen to her conversation with WBFO's Marian Hetherly below:

WBFO's Marian Hetherly talks with Fatima Morrell
Fatima Morrell, wearing a black jacket and silver jewelry.

"We have we literally built an office from the ground up, called the Office of Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Initiatives, to address racial inequalities in our school district community, in our schools, classrooms and our curriculum — providing equity spaces for our students and professional development for our teachers, as well as updating our curriculum to include those voices that are historically marginalized in our curriculum, our textbooks and, in many other ways, in our schools and classrooms.

"So we really went on a very ambitious endeavor to train 3,000-plus teachers three times over the last last three or four years in any bias, any racist teaching, and teaching culturally responsive practices and inclusion. And also our administrators and parents having received the same training. And also bringing in our nation's top experts on culturally responsive teaching and pedagogy, such as Ava Max Kennedy on anti-racism. Nikole Hannah-Jones has been here. We actually implemented the 1619 Project at the high school as a mandated requirement for all teachers of social studies and our district. We created the Emancipation curriculum to, again, in the histories and narrations and voices of communities of color that are so often left out of the American story that is told in our schools and in our textbooks. We really wanted to ensure that our our district community had a great office that was a resource for elevating these practices, understandings and ways of knowing in our school district.

"You know, 86% of our scholars are of color. Almost a flip of that, approximately 80% of our teachers are white. And we know that many of them is their first experiences with anyone of color when they come to work in the Buffalo Public Schools. So we always felt that it was really important that we integrate and infuse into our standing curriculum — because we knew that it was very Eurocentric-based in nature — that we included these other narrations and perspectives and voices and advocacy for social justice into our standing curriculum. And we have been doing that quite effectively for about three years along with the required teacher and administrator and parent training that goes along with it.

Black Lives Matter

"I will have to say to you that, after the incident with George Floyd, you know, we looked at that degradation of human life and dehumanization, another event of dehumanization, but this time it played out in such a horrific way on national media and social media platforms. To actually watch it was just horrific. And it really struck a chord with our teachers in the Buffalo Public Schools. In fact, we had a demonstration that summer of our teachers. Approximately 700 had Black Lives Matter protests right here on the steps of City Hall. And so many of those teachers are curriculum writers in the Buffalo Public Schools.

"They came back to the table and said, 'Hey, we really have to do more, we have to ensure that our young people know their value, we have to ensure that their culture is in this curriculum, we have to ensure we edify their voices even more so now. Because we knew there were many, many young people who are watching this play live out live and, of course, it became a national racial reckoning for our country, as we dealt with the dual pandemics: one being COVID-19 that had us all locked away in our homes glued to the television in a computer for 18 months, and then the other one being systemic racism that just really took a lead in terms of the dialogues and conversations.

"So teachers came back to the table after George Floyd and really began to say, it has to go deeper, it has to be more widespread. It can't be superficial on any level. And, of course, these were our white teachers, as well as our black and Latino teachers that were really saying, we need this in our schools. And we started writing more lessons that really focused in on our commonalities, but also included the narrations and stories and histories of our black, Asian, Latinx and, of course, indigenous student populations. We want to make sure that we honor those contributions and the intellectual brilliance and capacity of all people and especially, Black and brown people whose stories aren't told.

Buffalo Supermarket Shooting

"We also said, we don't want to ever create another Derek Chauvin or George Zimmerman, we don't want to create these folks, right? These people who have learned that they don't have to value Black lives or brown lives. We want all of our children to see the common humanity in all people. And so we said, we never want to raise another person like this person who committed this massacre on the Black community in Buffalo, and who actually touched the lives of 10 innocent people, many of them community giants who worked for excellence in education and equity. Were taken out, were killed that day. And so, in light of that massacre happening at our own doorstep, in our own backyard, we're now also doubling down on our efforts even more to say, this cannot just be about Black children knowing their own history and culture. This has to be about white children also knowing the history and culture of Black children.

"Because we know that they are fed over time with stereotypes about Black and brown people, and specifically black people. I'm talking about racial stereotypes. There's hate that is occurring. Each and every day, they fought on the national stage, like we've never seen it before, on January 6, right there at the Capitol building, which many of our children had a field trip there just the year prior to that. And so our young people have been exposed to this hatred and our white children are being exposed at even exponentially greater levels, because there's no one inserting, 'Hey, here's another perspective, here's another voice on what democracy means to this group of people.' Because we all believe in the democratic ideal of America, but we have many different perspectives about what those democratic principles mean for us as a community.

"So there are white children who don't even know where they come from many times, their history or their background, if they're Irish students or if they're German. They don't even know their own history and background to be able to love themselves. As this young man who came into Tops and stole and traumatized our community, and stole 10 lives of our community, they know how to love themselves. When you can't love yourself, because you don't know about yourself and you haven't been nurtured or you haven't been taught to value life, then you can't value someone else's life. And, therefore, it's easier to dehumanize someone based on their race and based on their social economic status or their gender identity or whatever it is.

"And so that's what we're doing in Buffalo. We're saying this is not only for Black and brown children who definitely need to know their greatness, because we're sending them so many messages of failure, so many negative ideas that help to develop negative self-concept. And we need to develop positive self-concept.

Healing Conversations

"But turning to this recent event, what are we doing with white children to ensure that they are globally competent citizens of America that respect all people? That also becomes a conversation around culturally responsive practices and knowing the greatness of other people in the common humanity. And where there are differences, why those differences are so great. Because that's what makes us America, our differences. And so in light of all of this, absolutely, we're doubling down on, of course, our healing practices in the district, our social emotional learning practices and being able to restore ourselves. It's traumatizing, right? And so, how do we restore ourselves as a community to remember our greatness, right? Our greatness as Buffalonians? But our greatness as Black and brown people? Our greatness as people, period, in this district community, in this city.

"So, yeah, a lot of conversations are occurring and the work continues. And we're now, you know, really, at this time, focused in on those healing conversations and those healing dialogues and how do we move forward as a district community. Who has been harmed and how to repair that harm? We ask for help from everyone, even those who don't look like us, to understand our plight and to understand that racism is real. And so with white supremacy, it's not something someone's talking about in a back room and it's just superficial. It's actually real, okay?

"This young man was a teen. He had guidance on this, he'd had thoughts that were put in his head, in one way or another, because he can't just make it up on his own, because he's still a child. So he was on these websites, he was interfacing with people saying things in the media regarding replacement theory and he ran on those ideas, because there was nothing else inserted to say, 'Wait a minute. Here's another idea. You might be looking at that the wrong way. You might be perceiving something that's actually not.' There's no one to interrupt the white supremacist notions that he had maintained once they were started.

"We are actually interrupting white supremacist notions of superiority. We're interrupting the marginalization of communities of color in our schools and our classrooms and our textbooks. But most certainly, after the incident at Tops on May 14, we are doubling down on how we ensure our kids are safe. But not just physically safe, intellectually safe, all children of all colors. How are we making sure that they are intellectually safe, so they don't get caught up in this web of lies and half truths and misconceptions about people of color and all people."